Don’t tell Bill Joy but a team of scientists has succeeded in creating the world’s first DNA motors – which makes the evolution of molecular electronic circuits that are thousands of times faster and smaller than silicon chips all the more plausible.
Joy’s notorious essay, which appeared in Wired magazine last summer (“Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us” – Aug. 8) exposed the fears the co-founder and chief scientist of Sun Microsystems Inc. has of the human race being overrun by technological advancement in nanotechnology, genetics and robotics.
While Bernard Yurke, a research physicist with Bell Labs and one of the doctors involved with the project, admitted his pride with reaching this plateau, he cautioned further advancement is still a ways off.
“We’re a good one to two decades away in terms of the communications industry but I suspect it could be used sooner in medical science,” Yurke told ComputerWorld Canada. “This technology can be used in biological systems, living organisms. These are molecular motors that are responsible for movement.”
DNA – or deoxyribonucleic acid – is the genetic material inside the nucleus of a cell that carries instructions for making living entities. The DNA motors, which resemble motorized tweezers, are about 100,000 times smaller than the head of a pin and the techniques used to make them may lead to computers that are 1,000 times more powerful than today’s machines.
“We’d like to build electronic circuits where the components are of molecular size,” Yurke said of his research team’s next conquest. “We need to learn how to attach DNA to other molecules that do interesting things electronically.”
Single strands of DNA will only bind to other DNA strands that have a complementary sequence of molecules on their surface to form the stable double-stranded helix.
Yurke and his colleagues told Journal magazine that a DNA tweezer was assembled by the simple expedient of mixing three specially designed single strands of DNA in a test-tube. Each single strand then found its complementary partner and attached itself to it, forming a V-shaped structure.
Not only will nanoscale products like DNA motors aid the creation of supercomputers, but they also have the potential to replace existing manufacturing methods for products such as integrating circuits.
Self-assembly research using various methodologies is not restricted to cell biology. For instance, Dr. Simon Safard, a senior research officer with the Ottawa-based Institute for Microstructural Sciences, is involved with the Canadian effort to do much the same as Yurke, only using nano-optics.
“Nano-optics uses the optical properties of a small structure to create quantum dots, the size of which are about one millionth of an inch,” Safard explained. “We’re also exploring the same result using nanoelectronics as computer chips become smaller…the self-assembly process is the future of reducing structures.”
The next hurdle for Yurke and his colleagues to overcome is the technology to assemble molecular components. In time, the tweezers should bypass this dilemma and allow for molecules to act as transistors.
The work of Yurke and his colleagues work is an incredible achievement, but one chilling thought of Joy’s lingers: “Our most powerful 21st-century technologies – robotics, genetic engineering and nanotech – are threatening to make humans an endangered species,” he wrote.
Yurke countered, “Nuclear weapons are a much greater threat. All technology can be used in good or bad ways, it’s a matter of society enacting laws to ensure a given technology is not used for the wrong purpose.”